Beyond lipstick and pigs

Oct 16th, 2008 | By | Category: Campus News, October 16, 2008

Wagner studies media influence on perceptions

Ask Michael Wagner about John McCain or Barack Obama and be prepared for half an hour of spirited analysis.

Although most of his research concerns how media portrayals of politicians affect public opinion, the UNL political scientist is eager to talk about the presidential candidates.

“Their messages have been kind of nebulous and unspecific,” Wagner said. “Neither of them has done a very good job of telling us what they’re going to do. For the most part, they’re sticking to platitudinous slogans.”

Who’s to blame for this deluge of one-liners and hollow sound bites?

The candidates and their staffers bear some responsibility for their own message crafting. Voters are partially at fault, for holding unrealistic beliefs about the nature of politics and what individual politicians, once elected, are capable of accomplishing. And in his research, Wagner shows that the mainstream media plays a significant role in shaping political discourse.

“News programs tend to get bogged down in who’s putting lipstick on a pig, or how many houses one candidate owns,” Wagner said. “These stories don’t tell us much about anything important. If we didn’t keep watching the shows that broadcast those messages, they would stop reporting them. But people are captivated, so there’s no reason for the news media to write that 2500-word story on the alternative minimum tax.”

A former campaign staffer and 1998 UNL graduate, Wagner received a doctorate in political science from Indiana University. In his forthcoming book, “Congress in the Public Mind,” (with Ted Carmines and Jessica Gerrity,) he explores how the media shapes perceptions of Congress.

“We’re interested in the factors that affect how people evaluate Congress. What do people want from Congress, what do they know about Congress, where do they get their information?” Wagner said.

His research examined how television news shows cover Congress – decidedly negatively, it turns out – and how these portrayals inflate the partisan nature of political debates and, in turn, give viewers a false sense of what Congress actually does.

Today, Congressional approval ratings are in the single digits, which, Wagner points out, is as bad as ratings can get. A group that he calls “knowledgeable ideologues” views Congress most favorably, because they understand that members of Congress have to compromise. However, these individuals make up a small percentage of the general population, which is one reason why Congress is so unpopular.

Media coverage drives attitudes about Congress much more than we may realize. In 2006, there was a great deal of coverage of congressional elections, highlighted by stories about the Mark Foley scandal and corruption on Capitol Hill.

“One scandal story begets other scandal stories,” Wagner said, “Also, there is a lot of focus on political strategy rather than on issues. TV coverage is more about the horse race: what’s the strategy, who’s winning, who’s losing?”

Wagner and his co-authors also discovered that where people get their information affects how they evaluate Congress. Local news viewers feel more favorably toward Congress, largely because local news outlets tend to cover homegrown politicians more favorably.

Non-television news sources further skew perceptions. Blogs preach to the converted, as people are drawn to Web sites that confirm how they already think. Wagner believes that cable news has made politics more polarizing. If you don’t want to hear the liberal or conservative side of an issue, you can find outlets that don’t give it to you.

Returning to the presidential race, Wagner sees recurring themes playing out.

“The issues that the candidates are talking about could be dropped into the last five or six elections we’ve had: the economy, health care, national security,” he said. “Democrats get high marks from the public on the economy and health care, Republicans on national security, taxes, crime. To a certain extent, we’re seeing the same campaigning we’ve seen in a wide variety of other elections.”

There is one key difference. Both candidates are trying to pitch themselves as post-partisan. They’ve a maverick and a reformer, even though they both vote with their parties a high percentage of the time, Wagner said.

As we enter the home stretch, what advice would Wagner give the two candidates?

“Change is a winning message. Focusing on economic issues is a winning message. And so to the extent that the economy is on peoples’ minds, if I were Obama, that is what I’d want voters to be thinking about. If I were McCain, I’d want voters thinking about how risky it is to give the presidency to someone without a lot of national experience.”
— By Sara Gilliam, University Communications

Tags: , ,

Leave Comment